The Ready Player One Pop-Culture Wink That’s Going to Divide Audiences

Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures

This post contains spoilers for Ready Player One.

At a pivotal point during the premiere screening of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One last night at SXSW, audience members were treated to a pop-culture reference not from an ’80s arcade game or a John Hughes movie, but from December 2017. Without spoiling too much: During big battle scene, a Big Thing is blown up and destroyed, and at the moment of impact, the sound went out. My first thought, bleary from a day of Too Many Movies, was: “Wow, a Last Jedi reference? Was that always going to be there?” But thanks to an equipment malfunction, the sound never returned, even as the virtual troops charged forward and our protagonist held up a boom box, John Cusack–style, at the vanguard, pumping up his army with a blast of nostalgic silence. (Nothing is more nostalgic than the silence of the womb.)

It took three tries to get the scene to play properly, and by the third time the crowd at the Paramount was cheering so loudly I never heard if the song on the boom box was Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” or some other revered/referential piece of pop music. It hardly mattered at that point, the incredibly hyped Austin crowd would have cheered for it anyway — they burst into grateful applause for every cameo and reference that graced the screen. An audibly nervous Spielberg — yes, even Steven Spielberg gets sweaty when debuting a film for the first time; he described the screening as “the greatest anxiety attack I’ve ever had” — couldn’t have asked for a more receptive crowd than the geek-heavy, genre-loving SXSW-ers.

But is the movie actually good? Well, it’s certainly not bad. Anyone expecting a train wreck from the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s gamer-bait novel must have lost the detail that Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s Cool Dad, master of functional, crowd-pleasing modern storytelling, was at the helm. It was always going to work, and there are parts that are genuinely dazzling. Spielberg knows how to conduct a larger-than-life car race, even if it’s entirely composed of pixels. Whether or not the IV feed of geek culture is too much entirely depends on your taste, but make no mistake, Ready Player One is nothing if not fun. Here are three spoiler-free takeaways from the premiere, and one spoiler-y — and sure to be divisive — one.

The CGI is phenomenal.
The wide-eyed CGI avatars — which are the visual representation of our band of heroes in the virtual world of the Oasis, and onscreen for the majority of the film — set off alarm bells for a lot of people when the trailers dropped, prompting flashbacks to The Polar Express and other ill-fated stumbles into the uncanny valley. But within minutes of meeting Parzival, the floaty-haired, gray-skinned, K-pop-looking avatar of our hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), I was actually unsettled by how … un-unsettling it was, and how readily I could accept him and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and the other avatars as one-to-one representations of human beings. Actors of Hollywood, be prepared to be S1m0ne’d.

The puzzles are all completely different from the book.
I guess this is a good moment to reveal that I haven’t read Cline’s book, but a cursory Wikipedia read tells me that his adaptation with Zak Penn opted to cook up a whole new batch of puzzles left behind by dead trillionaire James Halliday (played in the film by Mark Rylance in a Crypt Keeper wig — see, I can do pop-culture references too!). The puzzles cull much more from film than from video games, which makes sense, given the need to make the set pieces work visually. But there’s a good deal of gaming references as well, especially when it comes to the old-old school stuff like Adventure and Space Invaders. Spielberg insisted that “I’m a gamer too” — he played Pong for the first time on Martha’s Vineyard while shooting Jaws. Which was good to know, because I was a little worried about Steven Spielberg’s pop-culture credentials for a minute there.

Hip corporate activation CEOs of SXSW, Spielberg sees you.
Most of Ready Player One is impressively, expertly engineered to resist any kind of political reading whatsoever. Despite being about the legacy of a reclusive, socially inept, megalomaniac fanboy, it has nothing really to say about our real-world reclusive, socially inept, megalomaniac fanboys, except that they might be afraid to kiss girls. One of the few exceptions is a very funny scene with Halliday’s successor Nolan Sorrento (a fantastically pinched and pissy Ben Mendelsohn) in which he tries to convince Wade of his geek bona fides, all while being fed prompts about how much he loves Tab and Duran Duran by a researcher on an earpiece. To anyone who has ever set foot in the SecretxSW Anti-Perspirant Fresh Music Pit (not a real thing, but not far from a real thing), it’s incisive enough to risk being a little meta. Though Wade, the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, of course sees through the corporate fakery.

Spoiler alert: There is an extended homage to a very famous movie that will either delight or infuriate you.
The second puzzle, inspired by terminally awkward Halliday’s one and only date with a woman, takes place entirely within Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and they do it all. Spielberg creates a kind of space-time defying amalgamation of the Overlook Hotel and all its spooky environs, mashing it all up into a kind of Shining dark ride — we meet the twins, get swept up in a torrent of blood, find ourselves in Room 237 with the Bathtub Lady — everything but the blow-job bear, because this movie is rated PG-13. It’s an homage that keeps going and going, both impressive in its veracity and jaw-dropping in its emptiness. It’s the peak and nadir of “Remember this?” cinema all at once, and where you land on it is probably a good indicator of how you’ll feel about the movie as a whole.

Ready Player One’s Most Controversial Pop-Culture Reference